Testing autonomous vehicles in (almost) the real world


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The new Fishermans Bend campus will feature a world-leading test site for ground and aerial autonomous vehicles, replicating real-world conditions better than most other labs.

When the University of Melbourne’s new engineering campus opens at Fishermans Bend in 2025, visitors will be greeted by a fifteen-metre-high netted enclosure, complete with elevated walkways. It will look suspiciously like a giant exhibit for butterflies.

And they could be forgiven for thinking that’s what it is – especially if something buzzes by, mid-flight.

But it won’t be butterflies flitting around the ‘external flight’ area of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology’s new campus. It will be robots.

The outdoor area will be part of a huge indoor-outdoor test site for autonomous vehicles, including drones and ground robots. It will offer researchers one of the few sites in the world with the scale and technology to test robots in realistic conditions.

“This facility will give us the ability to translate research to application,” says Dr Airlie Chapman, a mechatronics expert who specialises in autonomous vehicles.

“It will be an intermediary between the lab and the field.”

Trees, buildings and weather are just some of the everyday obstacles autonomous vehicles must navigate. And it’s not easy for them. Robots can confuse buildings with trees, for example, and moving from outside to inside can send even the most sophisticated technologies haywire.

To overcome these hurdles, researchers need to develop and test robots in safe, laboratory conditions that are as similar to the ‘real-world’ as possible. But this requires space.

Luckily, the Fishermans Bend campus will offer space in droves. As a brownfield urban renewal site, the University has over seven hectares available to dedicate to large-scale research and development.

Developing a new, large scale research facility is the kind of once-in-a-career opportunity researchers dream about. It’s the reason Dr Chapman, a two-time Amelia Earhart Fellowship recipient, relocated to Melbourne from the University of Washington’s world-leading aeronautics department.

“To carve out a space that will last for decades to come is once-in-a-lifetime,” she says. “It’s going to be a beacon for researchers from around the world.”

A world-leading site

The new test site will comprise an indoor space connected by large sliding doors to the outdoor netted site, for testing tricky indoor/outdoor transitions.

Inside, the giant warehouse-like space will be fitted with a massive camera system featuring numerous motion capture devices. These will use infrared light to detect special markers attached to any moving object, robot or human. The system will then use triangulation to calculate where objects are located - in real-time, to within sub-millimetre accuracy. It will be a bit like a high precision indoor GPS.

Outside, researchers will be able to recreate any number of environments, including undulating terrain with different surfaces like grass, soil, concrete, a water feature or even a cluster of large trees. The elevated walkways will mean sensors can be mounted around the huge site (and lost drones easily retrieved).

It all adds up to a space where autonomous vehicles can be tested in realistic scenarios, opening up a range of new applications and improved technologies.

These include more efficient monitoring of ageing infrastructure - bridges, roads, powerlines and the like. This is often done by a person on a truck, but it can be time-consuming and dangerous, particularly in remote locations. Research at the new test site will help develop drones that can do it faster and more safely than a human, with robots than can move seamlessly from indoors to outdoors and distinguish between different structures.

Being able to test aerial vehicles over the top of ‘forests’ will also help improve how drones are used to predict and fight bushfires. For example, researchers will be able to develop sensors that better monitor for bushfire risks, and survey areas after a fire to check for unextinguished embers.

“It’s about developing better ways of monitoring from above through vegetation and understanding what that looks like from an aerial perspective,” says Dr Chapman.

Similarly, better understanding how drones monitor vegetation from above will help refine their use in precision agriculture. Hyperspectral sensors mounted on autonomous aerial vehicles already provide farmers with detailed information about their crops, but the new test site will help develop this further.

“They’ll be able to start working on almost plant-by-plant basis,” Dr Chapman says.

“We’ll be able to offer a huge amount of monitoring, to the point where they can check whether an individual plant is healthy and what it needs.”

This will help farmers avoid wasting resources like water and pesticides, as well as reducing polluting run-off.

For Dr Chapman, whose current lab is a “windowless basement”, one of the most exciting elements of the new test site will be its visibility at the entrance to the new campus.

“The fact that it will be a showpiece is really important,” she says. “It’ll be invigorating for the next generation of researchers when they come to university every day.”

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First published on 25 November 2021.

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